Teens in Argentina are leading the charge for a gender-neutral language

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina - As hundreds of teenagers flooded the dimly lit street for the student government rally, 18-year-old Natalia Mira raised her hand in the air and led them in a chant.

It was a song often heard among young people at political rallies in Buenos Aires, an ode to a former Argentine president, the populist Juan Perón, and his wife, Eva.

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"We will fight from sun to sun," they sang in front of their high school. "We are the youth, the soldiers of Perón."

In Spanish, a language in which all nouns are assigned a gender, the word for soldiers is masculine: "Los soldados de Perón."

The lyrics Mira sang were different: "Les soldades."

To most Spanish speakers, the "e" in both words would sound jarring - and grammatically incorrect.

But here, teenagers are rewriting the rules of the language to eliminate gender. In classrooms and daily conversations, young people are changing the way they speak and write - replacing the masculine "o" or the feminine "a" with the gender-neutral "e" in certain words - in order to change what they see as a deeply gendered culture.

Their efforts are at the center of a global debate over gender, amid the growing visibility of non-binary identities and a wave of feminist movements worldwide. A big part of the battle is being waged over language.

In the United States, the use of the singular "they" has become so common that Merriam-Webster in September adopted its use as a pronoun for non-binary people. In France, a school textbook promoting a gender-neutral version of French prompted the prime minister to ban the form in all official government documents. In Germany, dozens of influential figures protested local efforts to adopt gender-neutral language.

In Argentina, Mira's casual use of gender-neutral language in a television interview helped it spread across the country. Now the new form of grammar is finding official acceptance.

Departments from at least five universities across Argentina have announced that they will accept the use of this "inclusive" Spanish in schoolwork. The gender-neutral words are splattered on banners and campaign fliers and graffiti in the capital. After a judge stirred controversy by using the form in a recent court decision, an oversight committee of magistrates declared that it is now permissible for judges to use the gender-neutral words.

Books have been translated into the gender-neutral Spanish, including a version of "The Little Prince." The form has reached Spanish speakers in the United States, prompting discussions in university language programs.

Just weeks before he became Argentina's president-elect, Alberto Fernández used it publicly in a speech to high school students. And the new form was appearing in WhatsApp messages and Instagram posts as thousands, including Mira, prepared to go to the largest annual gathering of women in Argentine history, on a weekend in early October.

But eliminating gender in Spanish, a language spoken by more than 577 million people worldwide, is not as simple as adopting a gender-neutral pronoun. The Royal Spanish Academy, the preeminent authority on the centuries-old language, has said that such grammatical changes are "unnecessary and artificial." To many Spanish speakers, the gender-neutral form is an aberration.

The language form has divided the feminist movement from which it originated. While some within the movement insist on speaking in a way that includes non-binary people, others have resisted, preferring to emphasize the voices of women by using feminine words. Others wonder whether it's even worth trying to change the language - would it make a difference?

But as Mira and her friends chanted at their rally, the gender-neutral form was everywhere - in the songs they had memorized, on the banners strung from the marble building behind them.

Here at the Carlos Pellegrini High School of Commerce, teenagers were jumping up and down, shouting in the middle of the night to await the results of the school's student government elections, an event so important that it receives national media coverage.

The school, affiliated with the University of Buenos Aires, has long been considered an influential force in Argentine politics. And that's especially true for this generation. Much like the Parkland students in the United States or the climate activists in Europe, the teenage girls at Pellegrini High School have been at the center of Argentina's feminist movement.

Wearing a red fanny pack and Converse sneakers, Mira huddled her younger former classmates together, helping to manage a student government campaign even though she had already graduated.

"¡Gente!" Mira shouted. "Estamos literalmente empatades," she said, using a gender-neutral word to say "we're literally tied."

Students marched through traffic playing trumpets and drums. Spray-painted on a building across the street was the word "UNIDÆS," a gender-neutral form of the word "united."

After 1 a.m., a girl ran up to Mira to say the votes were all in, and Mira's group had won. Her friends erupted in cheers.

"Let's sing the march!" Mira yelled, leading the group in a new version of a song written many decades ago, the official anthem of the Peronist movement.

"Les muchaches peronistas, todes unides triunfaremos."

"The Peronist youth," they sang, in gender-neutral words. "All united we will triumph."

Not quite two years ago, Mira was scrolling through Facebook when she came across a post that struck her. A friend had written it replacing the "o" and the "a" with the "e" in words referring to groups of people.

The concept of a gender-neutral form of Spanish wasn't new to Mira. She was familiar with the use of the "x" in written words, as in the now commonly used "Latinx." She'd seen other examples too - symbols such as @ and æ for gender-neutral vowels.

But this new variation seemed like the most practical way to break with a system so patriarchal that plural words default to male. The gender-neutral "e" is not only more inclusive of non-binary identities, Mira says, it is also a powerfully symbolic way to protest the entire structure of the language.

"It generates a little crisis in your mind, like what's happening here?" Mira said. "It makes you stop and think about how we communicate."

The way we speak can in fact shape the way we think, said cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky. The word "bridge," for example, is feminine in German but masculine in Spanish. In experiments, Boroditsky found that German speakers are more likely to describe a bridge with adjectives associated with femininity, such as beautiful or elegant, while Spanish speakers are more likely to depict a bridge as stereotypically masculine - tall, towering or strong.

"If you can do that even with tables and chairs and watering cans, of course it becomes so much easier and more compelling to do that when it comes to humans," Boroditsky said.

Sometimes these gendered differences can have real implications in society. Researchers at the World Bank earlier this year found evidence that "grammatical gender" has a negative causal impact on female labor force participation.

And a recent study of speakers in Sweden, where the gender-neutral pronoun "hen" was added to the official Swedish dictionary in 2015, found that adopting the non-binary pronoun was associated with more favorable attitudes toward women and the LGBTQ community.

While changes in vocabulary happen fairly often, the grammar of a language rarely changes, said Paz Battaner, a lexicographer and member of the Royal Spanish Academy. It's not impossible for the gender-neutral form of Spanish to someday become so common that the academy accepts it, she said. "But I doubt it."

Mira believed that if she used gender-neutral Spanish in her own daily life, others might too. She started using it with friends, with her parents, with taxi drivers - even when she sang to herself in the kitchen. By the time a broadcast journalist interviewed her in front of her school in June last year, the words slipped out naturally.

At the time, lawmakers in the country were preparing to vote on a bill to legalize abortion, drawing massive crowds of young women to plazas and campuses wearing the green bandannas symbolizing the abortion rights movement.

Mira had been demonstrating in favor of the bill with her classmates when the broadcast journalist approached her. Pressed about the vote, Mira urged lawmakers not to go down in history as "those who let hundreds of women and hundreds of pregnant bodies continue to die" as a result of clandestine abortions.

And throughout the interview, she casually used gender-neutral words. As Mira spoke, the journalist, Eduardo Feinmann, kept interrupting to correct her.

"My way is Spanish. I don't know what yours is," the journalist fired back.

The confrontation made headlines across Argentina and the Spanish-speaking world, marking the first time the gender-neutral language had emerged in many mainstream news outlets. The viral video turned Mira into the punchline of jokes, the subject of attacks. To conservative Argentines, she represented the radical left, the feminists who want to legalize abortion, the teenagers who want to disrupt society.

A former teacher went as far as to post a meme on Facebook, picturing Mira holding a gun and using gender-neutral Spanish to make a crude sexual joke. "Enough with the feminazis," he wrote.

The attacks frightened her parents, who filed a complaint against the teacher with the prosecutor's office. But Mira's activism has changed the way they see the Spanish language, and the world around them.

"I began to question . . . why do we always say 'señores y señoras?' " said her mother, Norma Otero, 63, who now occasionally calls her students "chiques" in the private Catholic school where she teaches. "Why are we always last?"

The new form of Spanish has been slowly spreading, especially in Buenos Aires, a socially liberal capital city.

Less than a mile from Mira's family's apartment in Buenos Aires, the owner of a used book store said he has been rethinking the Spanish language ever since his teenage niece began teaching him the gender-neutral form.

"Language is not something that always has to remain the same," said the owner, Darío Del Rio, 44.

About six miles west, in the Villa Santa Rita neighborhood, Laura Soto Moreno, a 31-year-old college professor, is teaching her 3-year-old son how to use the "e" form. He now calls his friends "mis amigues" and his cousins "mis primes."

"I want him to understand that feminism is a way of life" and that gender is fluid, Soto Moreno said.

But in other, more conservative circles in Buenos Aires, the language form is seen as absurd.

"It's absolutely ridiculous," said Salvador Ugarte, a 65-year-old retired veterinarian, as he walked his dog in a park in Belgrano, a leafy residential neighborhood in the northern part of the capital. Only two genders exist, and such gender-neutral language is only used by leftist, "lower-class" people, he said.

His friend Hernan Semprum, a 77-year-old Venezuelan law professor who has lived in Argentina for 10 years, argued it is essential to preserve the purity of the Spanish language. "It is what truly unites all of the countries" in the Spanish-speaking world, he said.

In the same park, psychologist Agustina Taquini, 37, argued that women shouldn't need to change the language in order to get ahead. "In the end, it makes women seem more weak than strong," Taquini said.

To Mira, it makes sense that her generation would demand more. Unlike those of her parents' generation, who lived through a military dictatorship, Mira has only known democracy.

She was 9 years old when Argentina became the first Latin American country to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide. She was 11 when the country passed a gender identity law allowing transgender people to change their legal name and gender marker. She was 14 when the brutal killing of a 14-year-old girl prompted hundreds of thousands of women to march across Argentina, and later Latin America, to protest the high homicide rates of women, using the hashtag #NiUnaMenos, #NotOneLess.

Now, just weeks before a national presidential election, Mira was about to join many of those same activists for the 34th annual "Encuentro Nacional de Las Mujeres," or National Gathering of Women, held this year in La Plata, about an hour from Buenos Aires.

The weekend, expected to draw more than 200,000 women, would be filled with workshops and marches focused on women's rights - and gender-neutral language would be a central topic of debate.

Mira, carrying a stuffed backpack and sleeping bag and wearing a rain jacket, boarded the train with her friend Kiara Sanchez. She watched as it filled with women at each stop: women with green bandannas around their necks and tied to their bags, women greeting old friends and sharing mate, the traditional herbal drink, with strangers while sitting cross-legged on the train floor.

The train pulled into the station, and Mira and Sanchez followed the mass of people out onto the rainy street, dodging puddles as they walked. A giant white banner was strung along the street ahead of them: "Bienvenides a La Plata," it read, using a gender-neutral form for "welcome."

The banner was an immediate reminder of the internal divisions that often plague broad social movements like this one. For more than a year, activists had demanded a change of name from the "National Gathering of Women" to one that was more inclusive, naming genders other than female and acknowledging indigenous communities. The organizers refused, sticking with the original title.

Tensions arose again as darkness fell and Mira joined a group of hundreds of teenagers in the streets for a march organized to call attention to transgender people who are being killed at disproportionately high rates in Argentina.

"Vamos chiques," or "Let's go, guys," a leader of the group, a girl with rainbow-colored hair, shouted in gender-neutral Spanish as they started marching.

The students sang chants through the streets as local families watched from their balconies and windows. But the chants, Mira quickly noticed, overwhelmingly referred to women, using female pronouns.

"Mujer, escucha, unite a la lucha," one chant went. "Woman, listen, unite with the fight."

Mira wasn't chanting. Neither was her friend Matilda Gonzalez, 18. "Tonight is supposed to be about trans and non-binary people," Gonzalez muttered to Mira, "and all they're singing are songs about women."

On the last morning of the gathering, hundreds of women huddled in front of a stage, wrapped in blankets and scarves to block the biting wind. The smell of choripán sausages grilling at nearby food stands wafted through the air. In front of large screens, the organizers onstage shouted into microphones, trying to speak over chants from the crowd demanding a change in the gathering's name.

One by one, dozens of volunteers stepped up to a microphone and read off conclusions from the weekend of workshops, a list of demands for the coming year.

Among them was a message directed to the Royal Spanish Academy: "We do not want to speak 'well,' " a woman shouted into a microphone. "Language is a social construct."

"The use of the 'e' should not erase the fights that we claim with the 'a,' " she said to the crowd, referring to the feminine vowel.

"Language," she added, "is a product of a hegemonic, patriarchal and sexist power. It's fine to say 'sirvienta' but not 'presidenta.' " Critics of Spanish often point out that the word for "president," unlike "servant," is seen by some as grammatically incorrect in the feminine.

Mira had been surprised to hear the gender-neutral language embraced by older women. It was a clear sign that the form was growing in acceptance.

But the next day, after catching a ride home to Buenos Aires from a friend, Mira scrolled through the news coverage of the women's gathering on her laptop. Conservative commentators had aired photos of the gathering on TV, making jokes about the gender-neutral words on the event's fliers. Headlines about the long weekend were overshadowed by a presidential debate and, later, by the news that Argentina's president, Mauricio Macri, had compared his rivals' economic policies to placing a wife in charge of a house's finances. "Instead of paying the bills, she used your credit card," he said.

Mira shook her head as she pointed out the news story to Sanchez, sitting next to her at her dining room table. Then she closed out of the Web page and took a sip of mate, changing the subject.

She asked Sanchez about their plans for a vacation to the north of the country after school lets out in December. Mira thought about what would come after that, when she starts college, when she leaves behind her friends at the Carlos Pellegrini student center. She plans to study communications at the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Buenos Aires, one of the schools that has said it will accept the use of gender-neutral Spanish.

She will use it in classroom discussions, in her papers and presentations. She wonders whether it will come to define her once again.

"I don't want to be known as the girl of the 'e,' " she said.

But maybe, she thought, she wouldn't be the only one.

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